Connect with us


Penguins Grades: A Gritty Win, ‘In Your Face’ Defense, & Game Analysis



Pittsburgh Penguins game analysis, Noel Acciari, Matt Nieto celebrate

The Pittsburgh Penguins took a gut punch Friday by giving up a two-goal third period lead and losing to the Buffalo Sabres. Things seemed headed in the wrong direction, and were teetering on disaster, facing one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but perhaps that’s when the Penguins are at their best.

After a mistake-filled first period, the Penguins course corrected and controlled large portions of an entertaining game. They rallied for a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday at PPG Paints Arena.

The Penguins are back to .500 at 10-10-0. You can hold off firing everyone for another day.

Will the team finally understand–when they’re good in the defensive zone, play simply with some aggression, and make good decisions, they’re actually a pretty good team?

Jake Guentzel led all players with six shots as the Penguins top line with Sidney Crosby and Drew O’Connor provided constant offensive pressure and the first goal, but the Penguins’ fourth line, led by Noel Acciari, helped on the last two.

“I thought it was Cookie’s best game as a Pittsburgh Penguin,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

Cookie is Accairi, so named for his pregame routine of having cookies, scored a goal and was a defensive stalwart. Pittsburgh Hockey Now can confirm he indeed had a few Oreos before the game. However, Accairi didn’t claim to tip the game-winning goal by Erik Karlsson. It was close.

Get Dave Molinari’s Penguins recap here.

Penguins Analysis

The Penguins found their simple, ugly game. There were no fly-by offensive chances. They kept the puck low and pressured Toronto. It’s the type of win they’ll need against the speedy and talented Eastern Conference elite.

In the third period, they pressured the puck as Toronto tried to find space in the offensive zone. Toronto didn’t.

“I thought we did a much better job just from just battling, trying to play on our toes and play a little bit more in your face,” Sullivan said. “It always starts with managing the puck. And if you’re, you’re irresponsible with your decisions, especially on the on the zone entries, you allow a team like Toronto–with that transition game that they have–easy offense and its tough to keep them from scoring, but I think we did a really good job in that regard.”

It was a real banner first period at the Bender household, but not a good go for Penguins defenseman Erik Karlsson. The Penguins top d-man was, to be kind, not making good decisions with the puck. In the first couple minutes of the game, Karlsson overcommitted in the offensive zone, allowing Noah Gregor a breakaway.

Penguins netminder Tristan Jarry made the first of many tough saves.

A couple of minutes later, Karlsson didn’t cover his crease, and John Tavares was able to slide a pass from the corner across the crease to an uncovered Tyler Bertuzzi for Toronto’s first goal.

Less than four minutes after that, Karlsson had a clean look in the offensive zone but attempted a pass into traffic on the left wing. Toronto transitioned four-on-two. Matthew Knies finished a rebound on the rush just ahead of Karlsson for a 2-1 Toronto lead.

However, the Penguins not only held the fort in the second period, they were able to pin the Maple Leafs in the defensive zone, but not without several dangerous moments, of course.

Even if the Penguins maintained a risky offensive posture, they defended hard. Matthews and Mitch Marner were largely kept to the outside and–even better for the Penguins–denied the puck.

Karlsson dialed back his game to his team’s benefit.

The Maple Leafs All-Star top line had some chances late in the second period, but Jarry was very good. And Marcus Pettersson continues to take away the middle of the ice.

“(They) let me see the pack. Obviously, there were a lot of guys that had some big blocks. When they’re getting in the middle like that, and they’re able to block shots, it helps me tremendously,” said Jarry. “Just being able to get in front of the puck makes my job a lot easier, and it’s (fewer) saves that I have to make.”

One change to note in the second is that after the Penguins punted a pair of power plays, they simplified their game. They deflected and chipped pucks into the offensive zone with full-speed chase.

Expect more power play changes.

It was effective, even as the Penguins defensemen continued to be a little too antsy.

Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card

Team: B+

The Penguins brought the necessary emotional engagement for 60 minutes. There wasn’t a soft spot in the game, nor was there a time when they were lax.

There were mistakes; a few horrendous mistakes became a couple of Toronto goals. However, the Penguins’ bottom two lines showed up. Acciari had at least one goal. If he didn’t tip the Penguins’ go-ahead goal at the end of the second period, he provided a no-sunlight screen of Toronto goalie Joseph Woll.

“You know, getting pucks in deep, and we knew we needed to be hard on their D and (make them) turn it over and just be smart with the puck,” Acciari said. “I think there are times this year where we try to make that extra play, and it’s kind of cost us sometimes. But tonight we probably did a good job keeping it simple and just forecheck.”

Forecheck. Backcheck. Paycheck.

The Penguins’ power play, however, yeah. Oh boy. It’s not even an adventure. It has only moments of flickering vitality.

The Penguins had to hang on late in the third period, but they did. There were no silly attempts to make pretty plays, nor were there gaffes. They took away the middle of the ice and defended the net. Jarry did the rest, despite best efforts from Auston Matthews.

Penguins Power Play: D

Coaches made more changes on Saturday. Crosby and Malkin were reunited on the top unit with Guentzel, Alex Nylander, and Karlsson. It was brutal.

The horror show should have come with a Parental Advisory that is not suitable for all members of the family. However, with consecutive chances in the second period, coaches put Kris Letang at the point instead of Karlsson for both PP1 and PP2. It improved, though not enough to exclaim all is fixed.

“We’ll see where it goes. You know, that’s still a work in progress,” Sullivan said. “We know we’re capable of doing better in that regard. We’re going to work with the players and try to find their very best game.”

In other words, expect more changes.

Letang with Crosby and Malkin. It wasn’t great, but it was better than the alternative in the previous attempts. After 18 years, perhaps coaches should just leave that part alone and find the other two members of PP1?

Guentzel-Crosby-O’Connor: A

We beat up O’Connor a bit after the loss to Buffalo. However, he was light-years ahead of his game just 24 hours earlier. He was strong around the net, he was on pucks, and he extended zone time numerous times for the line. He also drew a penalty with his hard work near the net. O’Connor deserves special merit for his turnaround.

Crosby and Jake Guentzel continue to look like one of the best duos in hockey. All three forwards got a point on Guentzel’s first-period goal. Guentzel had six shots on goal through two periods.

Smith-Malkin-Nylander: C

The line was largely forgettable. Through two periods, they had one high-danger chance, but they allowed only one, according to

Going back through my notes, I didn’t have any notes on this line. It’s rough sledding right now.

Noel Accairi: A

He was good on the penalty kill. He also seemed to have some jump in the offensive zone later in the second period. He scored a nifty goal when he stepped in front of the goal line and roofed a shot over goalie Joseph Woll.

He provided a good screen for the go-ahead goal.

Matt Nieto was first on several pucks, too. The Penguins simplified game suited them.

Jansen Harkins: A

I outright loved his game. He dished a couple of hard hits and was poised to deliver a thundering hit behind the Toronto net until the defenseman got out of the way. Harkins gladly took the puc,k and the Penguins had a couple of scoring chances in front.

He was on his toes and aggressive.

“I took about 50 strides before I got to (the defenseman). So, I don’t think anyone wants to get in front of that. I’m just trying to bring something if that’s energy or some momentum.”

Erik Karlsson: D

The two Toronto goals were on Karlsson’s doorstep. Poor decisions and porous coverage dogged him in the first period.

He tightened up in the second period, but his power-play work with the Penguins remains more a nightmare than a dream.